Warming Up, Stretching Out And Cooling Down

Exercise is a wonderful thing. Done right, it improves both your fitness and your mood, and ultimately helps you live a longer and healthier life. That said, many people discover the hard way that it’s all too easy to do yourself a physical injury, either minor or serious, if you don’t take proper care. A good exercise routine should always include a period of warming up and stretching beforehand, and cooling down afterwards. Professional sportsmen and women in all fields – from Olympic runners through professional footballers to competitive martial artists – ensure they do these things as a matter of course, and it makes good sense for you to do the same.

Every exercise session should begin with a warm-up, which usually takes the form of light cardiovascular and aerobic exercises. ‘Warming up’ isn’t a metaphor or euphemism – what you’re doing is literally increasing the temperature of your body and muscles to prepare for vigorous exercise. It also increases your respiratory and heart rate, releases adrenaline and enhances the levels of oxygen and nutrients delivered to your muscles.

Warm-up exercises can take a variety of forms, but a light jog, either moving or on the spot, is a great way to boost your temperature and circulation. Aim to warm up for at least five to 10 minutes before moving on to the next step.

Many people combine warming up with stretching exercises, but there is an argument that they should be considered separately, as stretching is more effective once you are already warmed up. In fact, launching straight into stretching without warming the muscles first can lead to injury just as easily as vigorous exercise.

Performing the right stretching exercises before a full session will help relax your muscles and increase flexibility, and can also aid posture, balance and coordination.

The exact stretches you carry out will depend on the activity you’re about to do. A rugby player will need to prepare different sets of muscles to a track runner, for example. As a general rule, you want to stretch the main muscles you expect to use in your main exercise session, which often includes your quads, calves and hamstrings, as well as working your back, chest and arms where appropriate. Look to gradually stretch and hold for between ten and thirty seconds. Stretching is most effective when it’s done gently and gradually – it shouldn’t cause pain or discomfort.

Once you complete your exercise sessions, it’s equally important to ‘cool down’ rather than just stopping. Again, this might vary depending on the nature of the exercise you’ve just done – a runner will usually incorporate a slow jog or walk at the end of a session, for example. Whatever form it takes, working some light aerobics and stretching into the end of your exercise session will slowly return your heart rate and breathing to normal, and can help you avoid subsequent muscle soreness or stiffness.

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